Crime, Local News, News, Providence, West Bay

Man says RI attorney used him as ‘scapegoat’ for check-cashing scheme

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Marcus Crook says he was surprised when he was picked up by police at his job in Connecticut back in December, and sent to Rhode Island to face charges in an alleged check-cashing scheme from 2016.

The 30-year-old Pawtucket man was charged with three crimes, accused of cashing checks from the business account of attorney Robert McNelis at a local establishment, which lost more than $7,000 in the alleged scheme.

“He used me as a scapegoat,” Crook said in an interview with Eyewitness News on Thursday.

Police said McNelis had accused Crook of stealing his checkbook. But a month later, McNelis was also arrested, charged with 11 counts including bank fraud and soliciting another to commit a crime.

“Every check that was cashed, I was directed to do by Rob,” Crook said. “I had no reason to believe that anything I was doing was illegal.”

Crook, who said he knew McNelis because the lawyer had considered representing him in a civil case, told State Police that McNelis had directed him to cash the checks. Police said Wednesday: “The investigation corroborated certain key aspects of what Mr. Crook had told investigators.”

“I had text messages back and forth between Rob and I,” Crook said. “State Police aren’t going to go arrest him on 11 counts just on the word of me.”

State Police spokesperson Laura Meade Kirk declined to comment on those text messages on Thursday. But McNelis’ attorney–his twin brother Ryan McNelis–claims the texts are fabricated.

“A doctored, fabricated text record that Mr. Crook created by a cloned cell phone,” Ryan McNelis said in an interview on Wednesday.

Ryan McNelis said his brother maintains his innocence, and believes he will be exonerated as the case is adjudicated. He also contends that Crook stole his checkbook from Robert McNelis’ Johnston law office.

“He had access to the building and raided my brother’s office while my brother was away,” Ryan McNelis said.

“I didn’t steal them from his office,” Crook countered, claiming Robert McNelis handed him the checks. “I was actually sitting on his couch at his house.”

Crook says McNelis told him he needed the cash to pay back a woman from a case that was the subject of a disciplinary matter before the Supreme Court in 2016. According to the court order, McNelis had a non-lawyer assistant who had access to his financial accounts, and overcharged a client. McNelis paid the woman back $9,100, and was publicly censured by the court for his “recklessness.”

The court said he had ample time to learn from his errors after a previous public censureship in 2014.

McNelis was arrested at the Garrahy courthouse in Providence on Wednesday, and later arraigned and released on personal recognizance. His brother said he was heading on a belated honeymoon to Europe on Thursday.

Crook has a lengthy criminal record, and acknowledges he has broken the law on multiple occasions. He said McNelis paid him to cash the checks back in 2016, and he needed the money at the time.

“I’m responsible for what I do, and what I do wrong,” Crook said. “That’s all on me.” But he says he feels that the attorney exploited him in this case.

“A lawyer who’s supposed to have my best interest at heart,” Crook said. “Instead of having my best interest at heart, he used me as a scapegoat.”

Crime, Local News, News, Northwest, Top Video

Drivers charged in double fatal crash go before judge

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Two men accused of causing a fiery crash in Johnston last month that killed two passengers faced a judge on Friday.

Johnston police said video evidence shows Zachary Albanese and Peter Lawrence were racing on Route 6 on Dec. 13 before Albanese lost control of his vehicle and crashed.

Albanese survived the crash, but his two passengers – Taylor Reilly and Dylan Laurenzo – died as a result.

According to a court affidavit obtained by Eyewitness News, multiple eyewitnesses described the street race and alleged reckless actions by both drivers that preceded the crash.

Police said the two men started racing at a high speed when Albanese’s car swerved and crashed into another vehicle before hitting an SUV parked at a gas station, which burst into flames.johnston-crash-collage

Lawrence was not involved in the crash, according to police. Investigators used surveillance footage to track him down, spotting him in his pickup truck a week later.

Police said Lawrence denied trying to race Albanese, whom he did not know, saying “maybe he thought I was trying to race him.”

Albanese, 19, of Johnston, and Lawrence, 26, of Scituate, are both charged with street racing and two counts of driving to endanger, death resulting.

Neither suspect entered a plea in court. Both were released on personal recognizance as they await trial.

The street racing law is also known as the Justin Nunes law, named after a teenager killed in a crash in 2003.

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Business News, Local News, Money, Northwest, Top Video

Citizens Bank building new corporate campus in Johnston

JOHNSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Citizens Financial Group later this year will begin construction of a new corporate campus on an undeveloped parcel of land west of I-295 in Johnston.

Eyewitness News broke the story in December that Citizens was looking to build a new suburban campus in Rhode Island. The bank revealed the location of that campus during a news conference Wednesday morning at the Johnston Senior Center.

The campus will include about 420,000 square feet of office and meeting space, and 3,200 current employees will move to the new office.

Chairman and CEO Bruce Van Saun says Citizens chose not to renew its lease at its Cranston offices, which is up in 2018.

“That facility…was going to need a lot of work to suit our future needs,” Van Saun told Eyewitness News after the announcement.

johnston citizens campus site map
Rendering courtesy of Citizens Financial Group. Click to enlarge »

The new site is off of Greenville Ave in Johnston, where the state has agreed to build new exit ramps off of I-295. The Rhode Island Department of Transportation and Citizens Bank will split the cost of the new exits.

“As I’ve said many times, first-class companies need first-class infrastructure,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said, referring to the new ramps. Raimondo said the state’s Commerce Corporation did not offer any tax incentives to Citizens Bank.

“I think we can make the economics work without that,” Van Saun said. “And I think there’s potentially a bit of a backlash when people see that take place.”

Van Saun said the company did not consider leaving Rhode Island.

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena  says the city is offering Citizens Bank a 20-year property tax stabilization agreement, the details of which Mayor Polisena would not disclose until the deal is finalized.

“It’s advantageous to Citizens, and it’s very advantageous to the town of Johnston,” Polisena said.

Polisena said property values in the area should increase with Citizens Bank in town, and local businesses will benefit from the surge of employees working there. He also praised the construction jobs that will come once ground breaks on the project later this year.

“We have a lot of working class people in the town in the construction industry, and it’s going to put them to work,” Polisena said.

The construction company contracted to build the campus said there would be hundreds of workers on the site.

Robert Coupe, the Director of Administration for the City of Cranston, said city officials tried to convince Citizens Bank to stay in the city in talks several months ago.

“Unfortunately we simply could not offer the space and setting that they were seeking,” Coupe said in an email. He added that the new facility was still close enough to Cranston for employees to visit restaurants and stores there.

“With thousands more employees located so close by, this move may have a significant positive economic impact on Cranston,” Coupe said.

He said the city is working with the owner of the space currently housing Citizens Bank to find a new use.

The bank said its headquarters will remain in downtown Providence. Citizens has about 5,300 total employees in Rhode Island, including workers at branch locations.

The decision to build the new Johnston campus comes as Citizens executives continue to chart its course as an independent bank, following its recent spin-off from U.K.-based Royal Bank of Scotland, its parent company since 1988. European officials forced RBS to sell Citizens after the British lender received a huge government bailout during the financial crisis.

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